In which the Triffids overwhelm Peyton Place and what happens next.
Other books and films have offered stories of the last people on earth facing horrendous circumstances, immense deprivation, and well-nigh certain annihilation, only in the last frame or on the last page to show them stood on a hillock, framed against a rich sun, with heads held high and ready to face a future of harsh potentialities domitable by the force of the human spirit. J.G. Ballard wrote a quartet of disaster novels but they are more concerned with alienated man finding equanimity in a world that mirrors his own spiritual catastrophes 1. Wyndham and Christopher are more than just more than happy to re-enact the Battle of Britain and reheat that old Dunkirk spirit. But Disch wants to face up to the actuality of such a holocaust, and also the death-wish impetus with which all of these stories flirt; "the grandeur in the idea that all the other people threw away and trivialized. It was always aesthetically unsatisfying to see some giant juggernaut alien force take a quiet pratfall at the end (when) the real interest...is to see some devastating cataclysm wipe mankind out. "Thomas Disch interview", Charles Platt, 1980." Disch takes his drama straight, with absolute realism (correspondence please to Ian Watt) the effect for which he is striving.
In delineation of character and interaction between said characters The Genocides owes more to gothic dramas of "seething, barely suppressed tempestuous passions in small-town America" than the feist and redoundable grit offered by Wyndham or H.G. Wells. Disch's limning of monumental catastrophe focuses on the minutiae of individual lives, but shows how their circumstances and the need for survival overpower all the individual's attempts at self-determination 2. Disch treats his story with the same resources and seriousness of purpose as any mainstream, midlist literary novelist, with scenes depicted from the pov of individual characters (hello uncle charles, hello hugh kenner), while particularly noticeable is Disch's adeptness at eliding the passage of time. A mark against The Genocides is a tendency for such lines as: "Only the pain of memory could ease the pain of regret, and nothing could ease the pain of memory", and "He hated the Plants, and that hatred gave him strength," or even "The farmers- their bones as ill-clothed with flesh as that flesh with tattered denim - outnumbered them three to one, and the farmers had been able, while the wolves slept (lambs, might not one better say?), to confiscate most of the weapons and prevent the use of the rest". Most of these poor unfortunates, whose ungainliness and emotional gaucheries presage Disch's later achievements with a balanced, multivalenced prose, occur in the vicinity of Orville, and might be justified as partaking of his personality and actions, but part of the problem must lie in and derive from an aesthetically aspirant writer in his early 20s trying to describe a man in his mid-40s under the most extreme duress. It is the fact, to his credit, that Disch attempts and is capable of presenting, even at this early stage, a variety of styles and tones that such callow striving for effect (which one would find to be the predominant mode in equivalent works from the tonier end of the "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" tropos of fiction) is shown up by the stretches of more mature and efficacious work in this novel 3.
Those who revile Dish for a flippant neo-liberal will not take kindly to the assessment that "one realises in a wonderful double-take that the whole book could haven been written, so to speak, by an intelligent mouse in virgin territory that man has decided to take over. The Genocides is an ecological protest quickened into appalling flesh" (Hilary Corke, The Listener May 11, 67); a rather more literal variant on Disch's theme of the environment - what it does to us psychically, and what we do to it physically - to be seen in an even more polemical form in The Ruins of Earth.
Finally, it was The Genocides that led to Disch being accorded the reputation of Mr. Greyskies Miserypiss - Disch sinning against science fiction's belief in science and man, where every problem posited is a problem to be solved, leading to a world better than man ever knew and Jerusalem builded here, there, and everywhere, Amen. Which rather meretricious attitude is an inheritance from populist American fiction of the later 19th century and earlier 20th:
"It habitually exhibits, not a man of delicate organisation in revolt against the inexplicable tragedy of existence, but a man of low sensibilities and elemental desires yielding himself gladly to his environment, and so achieving what, under a third-rate civilisation, passes for success. To get on: this is the aim. To weigh and reflect, to doubt and rebel: this is the thing to be avoided. I describe the optimistic, the inspirational, the popular magazine, the peculiarly American school. In character creation its masterpiece is the advertising agent, who by devising some new and super-imbecile boob-trap, puts his hook-and-eye factory "on the map," ruins all other factories, marries the daughter of his boss, and so ends as an eminent man. Obviously, the drama underlying such fiction is false drama. It is the sort of thing that awakens a response only in men who are essentially unimaginative, timorous and degraded - in brief, in democrats, bagmen, yahoos. The man of reflective habit cannot conceivable take any passionate interest in the conflicts it deals with. He doesn't want to marry the daughter of the hook-and-eye factory; he would probably burn down the factory if it ever came into his hands. What interests this man is the far more poignant and significant conflict between a salient individual and the harsh and meaningless fiats of destiny, the unintelligible mandates and vagaries of God. His hero is not one who yields and wins, but one who resists and fails. Most of these conflicts, of course, are internal, and hence do not make themselves visible in overt melodrama. A superior man's struggle in the world is not with exterior lions, trusts, margraves, policemen, rivals in love, German spies, radicals and tornadoes, but with the obscure, atavistic impulse within him - the impulses, weaknesses and limitations that war with his notion of what life should be. Nine times out of ten he succumbs. Nine times out of ten his aspiration almost infinitely above his achievement…In nearly all first-rate novels the hero is defeated. The hero of the inferior - i.e., the typically American - novel engages in no such doomed and fateful combat. His conflict is not with the inexplicable ukases of destiny, the limitations of his own strength, the dead hand upon him, but simply with the superficial desires of his elemental fellow men. He thus has a fair chance of winning - and in bad fiction that chance is always converted into a certainty. His success gives thrills to persons who can imagine no higher aspiration."
- H.L. Mencken "The National Letters", PREJUDICES: SECOND SERIES, 1920.
1 Algis Budrys, in his Galaxy Dec '66 review of The Genocides, could only and intemperately understand Disch as a Ballard manque - "It's rather difficult to speak of Disch without prior reference to Ballard as the master of the inertial sf novel. This is a run, hide, slither, grope and die book much like The Drowned World. Disch is such an apt pupil that he has not surprisingly become a strong candidate for salutarian, and it is understandable why the Chamber of Commerce is predicting such a bright future for him as he goes into the real world. He may even make it".
2 It is his choice of characters that seems to have deterred and offended science fiction reviewers, even more than the theme of mankind's destruction. Even at their most dynamic the protagonists in Disch's novels are never the captains of their own destiny, the Roddy Rocketpacks who become the central figures of humanity's fate, that make most sf novels "adventure" stories.
"Disch's characters are dull and listless, with no capacity for hope or cheer, and as they make one stupid error after another one is left only with the thought that as far as Disch is concerned the human race doesn't deserve to live" - is Phil Stephensen-Payne's upbeat assessment, not taking into account that it is more likely in the given situation that humanity would be inacapable of surving.
Chris Evans coming closer with "Disch's characters hasten their own destruction by bickering and fighting among themselves. It seems likely Disch set out to debunk the myth that people will act heoically in the face of catastrophe".
As Judith Merril notes "Survival in crisis is not (as so many s-f authors seem to think) a random factor. Disch is not writing about how it ought to be; he is stating, clearly and convincingly, how, in a given situation, it would be. Without twisting the behaviour of his characters to conform to his own pre-conceptions of right-and-wrong, the author does manage to say a great deal about his concepts of morality, especially as applied to the nature of survival and the struggle for existence."
While fellow midwesterner John Sladek, in his piece "Four Reasons to Read Thomas M. Disch", Stellar Gauge 1980, argues that Disch accurately encapsulates the spiritual poverty of his characters, and that their flaws and self-contempt are the real forces that lead to destruction, both in the course of the novel and in real life. The name of the village, "Tassel" - the flowering on corn, is ironic since these people are being killed off by their own natures as well as being edged out by the Plants.
3 Brian Aldiss - "He tells his story in rapid bursts, leaving out sections that possibly bored him, so that often the effect is of watching a number of stills flashed onto the screen, rather than a moving film. Disch's portrayal of mankind reduced to parasitism on the very growths that have defeated him is done with a sort of clinical glee that generally keeps the fantasy within harness. One must mention that the general picture of disaster is spoilt occasionally by too heavy touches (of) melodrama. I enjoy the way Disch makes his great trees stand as analogies of some otherwise uninterpretable thing, as if growth and life and change were terrible things bringing always their opposite, destruction, paralysis, death."